FRANK FORD III will never forget the anonymous letter. Handwritten and postmarked CHARLESTON, S.C., it turned up in his mail one morning in the early '90s. "You ought to be ashamed of yourself," the nameless correspondent fulminated. "You're not half the golfer your grandfather was." Ford, a financial planner with an office on old Charleston's Meeting Street, could have argued the latter point. He had, after all, won the prestigious Azalea Invitational Amateur six times, while his grandfather--the legendary Frank Ford Sr.--had won it a mere four times. But he understood what had set off his anonymous correspondent. In an article in the local newspaper about the old man's induction into the Carolinas Golf Hall of Fame, he had been quoted saying of his grandfather, "He built a great record, but he was never able to take his game too far out of town."
It wasn't meant as an insult. "Granddad was unbeatable locally, and he played great at the state level," Frank III explained recently, "but he only played in one U.S. Amateur and in a couple of four-balls with Henry Picard. His business took up most of his time. By the '50s, when maybe he could have traveled more, he was a little over-the-hill to compete nationally."
Worried that others might have misinterpreted the quote as well, Frank III took the poison-pen letter to the family patriarch and had him read it. "If what I said came off that way, I apologize," the grandson said. "I didn't mean it that way."
Frank Sr., then 88, said, "I never took it that way." He handed back the letter. "Whoever wrote this is a coward."
More likely, the letter writer simply didn't understand that "local champion" is a term of the highest endearment to the Fords of Charleston. Until Frank Ford Sr. died last June, only days after his 100th birthday, he played patriarch to a four-generation clan of hotshots with more than 100 significant championships to their credit. What the Wallenda family is to the high wire and the Gambino family is to crime, so are the Fords to golf in the Carolina Lowcountry.
They have been particularly hard to beat on their home course at the Country Club of Charleston, where the Azalea has been played since 1946. Frank Sr.'s mother, sister and brother took up the game at his behest, and each eventually won a club championship. His wife, Betsy, won multiple titles. Frank Sr. won 18 club championships; his sons, Tommy and Billy, have won 10 more between them; and Frank III has taken another 16 despite withdrawing for a decade to give other members a chance.
No less a figure than Ben Hogan learned how difficult it is to beat a Ford at Wappoo (the nickname for the course, which is bordered by Wappoo Creek). In April 1959 Hogan and Country Club of Charleston head pro Al Esposito played Frank Sr., then 55, and Picard in an exhibition four-ball match before 2,000 spectators. Hogan and Ford both shot 68s, but the match turned when Ford eagled the par-5 15th, justifying his nickname, the Wizard of Wappoo.
If Hogan was surprised, Picard wasn't. The former Masters and PGA champion, who spent his retirement years as pro emeritus at the Country Club of Charleston, often said that he had refined his own game by copying Ford's. "Frank played with Horton Smith, Paul Runyan and myself, and he beat us as often as we beat him," Picard once recalled. "He never took any strokes off us." As owner of Ford's Redi-Mix Concrete Company, Frank Sr. had neither the time nor the inclination to be a barnstormer like contemporaries Smith and Walter Hagen, but with his handsy, swaying swing he wouldn't have looked out of place in one of those Hollywood shorts starring Bobby Jones--with whom, by the way, he had played.
"Daddy's short game was astonishing," says 60-year-old Tommy Ford, who runs a commercial photography studio out of his house in nearby Mount Pleasant, S.C. " Jack Grout, Jack Nicklaus's teacher, said Daddy was the greatest wedge player he ever saw." Frank Sr. also had one of the greatest wedges ever--a yellow-shafted Spalding sand wedge designed by the club's inventor, Gene Sarazen. "My word," says Frank III, "Granddaddy could make that club sing."
It is the elder Ford's role as progenitor of a golf dynasty, however, that keeps his name in the news (Ford Family Tree, page G6). Keeping all the Fords straight is a challenge, but the line descends through his three sons (Frank Jr., Billy and Tommy) to seven grandchildren (including Frank III, Billy Jr., Anne Ford Strickland and the nongolfing Tim Ford, who nonetheless married a former member of the Dutch junior golf team, Jiska Ford), 11 great-grandchildren (including 29-year-old Cordes Ford, a Charleston lawyer who won the Carolinas Amateur when he was 20 and still holds the Country Club of Charleston course record, a 62) and finally down to a handful of fifth-generation toddlers and rug rats who are currently swinging plastic clubs with preternatural skill. Says Cordes, "There's something in the blood, maybe."